Networking — now there’s a word that provokes a range of reactions.
On the plus side, there are those people who we think of as “amazing connectors.” The ones who seemingly know everyone and are always looking to help.
Then there are other types of networkers. The ones that are shoving a business card into your hand before you’ve even finished introducing yourself.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do networking, and we want to give you the tools and confidence to do network in a way that is both productive and effective.
If you’ve attended a networking event, stood in the corner with a drink in your hand and left without meeting a single person — this article is for you.
If you attended a conference, met some interesting people, but never talked to them again — this article is for you.
Even if you find networking easy, you’ll learn new strategies for connecting with people in a more meaningful and mutually beneficial way.
“How do they do it?”
We all know those connected people who seem to know everyone.
No matter what challenge or problem you have, their response to you starts with “I know a guy that…” or “I met this amazing woman once who…”.
How does this happen? Are these people naturally charismatic? Are they really, really, really, ridiculously good looking?
Perhaps the answer is yes to both of these questions, but that’s not the secret. The reason they can be this connected boils down to two things:
- They’re curious
- They’re helpful
Combine those two things, and you are well on your way to being a productive networker.
Of course, that sounds great in theory but how do you do it?
What happens when you show up at a networking meetup, and you want to meet new people, but you’re an introvert and don’t know how to do it?
What about when you go to a conference, and there is the dreaded “mixer” and you have a great conversation with someone? You’re about to go your separate ways — now what do you do?
Here are five strategies you can use to meet new people and build a meaningful network.
1. Have good answers to the questions you get all the time
You meet someone at an event, and what questions are you guaranteed to get in the first few minutes?
“Where are you from?”
“What do you do?”
“What brings you to the event?”
“Who was your favorite speaker today?”
You know you are going to get these questions, so why not put some thought into your answers?
For example, Thanh could say “I live in Austin,” but wouldn’t it naturally lead to a better conversation if he said “I live here in Austin but grew up in the Netherlands. Have you ever been there?”
The conversation could go to how much the person loves Austin (who doesn’t?), or could go to talking about that person’s awesome European vacation, or who knows where.
I could say “I work with computers” or “I do online education,” but isn’t it more effective to say “I’m the COO of an executive training company where we help leaders be more productive. The only thing is I work at home in my basement, so I’m so happy to be here talking to other real human beings…”?
Chances are, that conversation is going to go to talking about what kind of training we do, or more likely will go in the “wow I could NEVER work from home…” direction. Either way, great!
Note that we are not talking about having a canned and boring elevator pitch here. It’s more about anticipating common questions and having pre-thought answers that will move the conversation along.
Now you might be thinking, “my job isn’t very interesting” or “Sure that works when you live in Austin or Vancouver, but where I live is boring.”
Trust me; there is always something to talk about if you give it some thought. The other day I was in the town with the world’s biggest hockey stick.
One night I was hanging out at a bar (long story) and talked for hours with a marketing guy whose whole town revolves around a faucet manufacturer. There’s always something!
2. Ask good questions
I just finished saying how we always get the same questions in a networking situation.
You, my friend, are going to be the exception. This is the opposite of the last tip: think of some questions to bust out in a networking situation when required.
Here are some examples:
- “Do you like to travel? What’s your favorite place?”
- “Have you ever been to any awesome restaurants in town?”
- “I’m trying to read more. Have you read any good books recently?”
- Ask them about their town. If there’s one topic everyone knows about, it’s where they live. A while ago, I was talking to someone on the plane, and he told me about this amazing lake he lives on in Guatemala. I did not see that coming.
- If you have any vague interest in sports, this can be handy. If you meet someone from Minneapolis, you could ask “Have you ever been to a Minnesota United game?”. Even if you don’t know much, you could ask “I don’t really follow football. How are the Vikings doing this year?”
- If you’re meeting someone who you follow on social media and you know they’re interested in a certain topic, that can be helpful. Especially if it is something different than what the event is about. A “SEO rockstar” is probably sick of talking about SEO, but may love to talk about fly fishing or workout routines.
3. Look for opportunities to help
When you are meeting someone, a mindset that will never steer you wrong is: “How can I help this person?”
Note that this is not to keep score. It’s very likely, and expected, that you will get nothing out of this (initially).
However, helping people a) will make you feel awesome, and b) people always remember when you help them.
Here are some things to think about:
- Do you know someone who can help them with what they’re stuck with?
- Do you know of some awesome product or service that could solve their problems?
- Is there a website or podcast that they’d love?
Over the years, I’ve spent a little bit of time with Tim Grahl.
A mindset that I learned from him that has always stuck with me: “be relentlessly helpful.”
If you have a relentlessly helpful mindset, and if you apply that to networking, only good things will come from it over time.
4. Make plans right away
Here is where you can take your networking from decent to ninja level.
Think about how meeting someone usually ends.
“Really nice to meet you.”
“Do you have a card or something?”
“Sure here you go! Let me know if you’re ever in Austin.”
“Same if you ever come to Vancouver.”
…and then you never speak to that person again.
Don’t just exchange cards, make plans right then to see or connect again!
You’ll have to read the room here, but some things to keep in mind:
- Lunch or dinner can feel like a to-do list item to some people – especially busy people. Asking to “go for coffee” or “meet for dinner” might be tough, especially if they have a family.
- A way around that: plan something that involves their significant other! A coffee might be a chore, but a dinner party might be exciting.
- If you have similar aged kids, a playdate or shared activity might be great. The kids ride the waterslides, you make a deeper connection.
- If you know they like a particular sports team or event, tickets to a game or a hike might be more enticing than a dinner.
The key: given what you’ve learned when you meet someone, is there a way you can suggest a follow-up or connection right away? Even “Hey what do you think of a Skype call next Tuesday at 3pm?” is better than no follow-up at all.
Speaking of follow-ups…
5. Follow up the right way
Following up on meeting someone is the most important but also the most neglected part.
Thanh calls this a “failure at the last mile,” and it’s true. If you’re an introvert, you’ve done the hard part — you’ve put yourself out there and met someone. Now don’t waste that emotional and mental energy!
If you’ve followed #4 and made plans right away, this will be no problem. You’re already ahead of the game.
One strategy is to keep in touch via social media/occasional emails – loose connections can be surprisingly powerful.
If you want to be even more strategic, we have an article about strategically staying in touch and building your network via a contact manager, and we talk more about what to do when you return from an event in our popular podcast episode about conferences.
(Fun fact: Thanh and Brooks first met at the Macworld conference and mostly kept in touch at other conferences, so we have a lot to say on the topic!)
Where To Go From Here
Let’s say you are a massive introvert or feel like you “suck at connecting” (I may be projecting here).
Here’s what you do: think about the last event where you met someone.
Create an action or plan to reach out to this person and connect. It doesn’t matter if it was four years ago. I’d be willing to bet they’ll be thrilled to hear from you, and if not, what did it cost you? An email? A tweet? No problem. You now have the tools for next time.
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